Category Archives: Interfering with Childhood Play

Interfering with Childhood Play

As parents, we want the best for our children. We instinctively desire that they have the best of everything; the most memorable experiences, the happiest days, the most secure futures. Sometimes, however, this desire to do everything possible for our children interferes with what is actually best for them.

Our eldest daughter had a project for her 3rd grade class this past week. They are learning about structures, and were to build a model of a structure that people lived in. Having spent most of her childhood in Ireland, Meadbh chose an Irish cottage. We were instructed that parents should help only when necessary. Of course, using jigsaws or band saws or a Stanley knife are things that parents might want to help with at this age. But the temptation to help her at every step was great. Throughout the project, we thought that it would be better if she just changed this or included that. Of course, if we did that work for her — or involved ourselves (or our ideas) too much along the way, we would be interfering with her own personal experience of exploring the work herself. In the end, she did a fabulous job without our continual interference.

Parental interference is also tempting in relation to childhood play. Sometimes, we over involve ourselves with the play of our children. We think that our experience will serve to make their experiences better. We organize activities, sign them up for teams and provide guidance on how they can improve their skills. We do this with the deepest love we have in an effort to provide the best play experience for our children. We think how wonderful it is that they are able to play soccer on a professional-quality field and in uniforms that make them feel like they are part of a big-league team. We do our best to offer excellence to our children.We want them to have things we didn’t have when we were young.

What we forget sometimes, is that an important aspect of childhood play involves the natural, creative and self-learned process that takes place when parents or coaches aren’t around to guide them. The process in which children come together, invent a game, pick the teams, make the rules, resolve conflict and create fun for themselves is extremely important — not only as a means for them to learn experientially, but as material for lasting childhood memories. This natural process of play becomes threatened when adults get too involved. Teaching a child to do something right is sometimes less important than allowing a child to do things wrong on their own. The fact is, in play, children don’t need our help.

Too often today, our children spend their time being shuttled back and forth, to and from organized, structured activities. There are coaches, uniforms, instructions, skill assessments, fees and commitments in modern play. Houses are no longer connected by the footprints of children and many neighborhoods are quiet today. Children no longer have to invent games; they just have to participate in them. They don’t make the rules; they abide by them. They don’t pick the teams; they join them.

The participation in natural, unstructured and creative childhood play teaches our children more than any coach can:

  • In play, children learn how to resolve conflict through compromise: The simplicity of “do-over” as a method of balancing two opposing opinions during play could be a lesson for many corporate and political quarrels.
  • In play, children learn how to be fair: The process of selecting “It” is based on pure objectivity.
  • In play, children learn how to be tolerant: No player is too small, too slow or too awkward to be included in the game.
  • In play, children learn to adapt: Rules are introduced as needed to ensure an even playing field or to increase the challenge for skilled players.
  • In play, children learn teamwork: Making a human chain in jail to give our remaining teammates a better chance to free us demonstrates our unity.
  • In play, children learn to trust: There is no greater ally than your playing partner.
  • In play, children learn to take chances: Is it possible to make it to the other side if I run now?
  • In play, children learn to laugh and not take themselves too seriously: It’s just a game after all.

And in the imperfection of unstructured, creative play; children are reminded of the most important thing — that they are children and that play is fun, just like it should be.

Of course, this isn’t to say that children shouldn’t participate in organized activities or structured teams. I was on a summer swim team in Peekskill, New York every year from the time I was seven years old and I have wonderful memories of those years. Learning practical skills in sports like baseball, soccer, basketball, football and gymnastics is great. As parents, we just need to ensure that we give our children enough time to participate in unstructured, creative play as well. As in most things in life; a healthy balance is the prescription.